Story by Frances Figart | Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham
Living in the rural countryside of Bangladesh, a group of women met each day to crochet beautiful, high-quality scarves, shawls and jewelry. Their art created a respite from their daily struggles to feed their families and send their children to school. Learning about the fair trade system, they formed an artisan group called Hajiganj and now sell their wares in the US through a network of nonprofit stores called Ten Thousand Villages.
Sara Martin had the privilege of meeting these women, one of the many life-changing experiences she has had since becoming involved with the nonprofit almost a decade ago. “I started volunteering with Ten Thousand Villages while I searched for a job in Asheville, and it didn’t take long to realize that I had found a really special organization,” she says. Transitioning rapidly to part-time employee and then assistant manager, Martin now works closely with Jennifer Elliott and Mandy Broderick, co-managers of the downtown Asheville fair trade, nonprofit retail store, one of more than a hundred such stores in North America.
Based in Akron, PA, Ten Thousand Villages helps artisans in developing countries earn income by bringing their jewelry, clothing and home décor items to the US market. It began in 1946 when an intrepid woman named Edna Ruth Byler sold the wares of Puerto Rican weavers from the trunk of her car and eventually opened the first Ten Thousand Villages store in her basement. The organization is now a leader in the fair trade movement and has provided working capital and a market for makers around the world for more than 70 years.
“My work gives me deep joy because I’m in a community of like-minded, hard-working staff and volunteers who are committed to economic opportunity for some of the poorest people in the world,” says Elliott. “The makers have the opportunity to make beautiful handcrafted items, be paid a living wage and live a life of dignity. Our customers have the opportunity to support that vision with purchases of high-quality merchandise at a reasonable price. I get to help bring them together.”
The Asheville store was opened in 1992 by Joe and Mabel Mullett. Mabel started out as the manager of the Montreat store, and she and Joe ran the Asheville store in their retirement as volunteers for the first several years. Now, 25 years later, the expanded store has two full-time staff, six part-time staff and more than 30 volunteers. “Not only are we committed to paying our artisan partners a fair price for their work,” says Broderick, “as a Living Wage certified business, we extend the same fairness to our own staff.”
All Ten Thousand Villages products are fairly traded, a system that offers makers a fair, living wage for their work. Each purchase provides income for skilled artisans in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This income means makers are better able to improve their homes, educate themselves and their children, and put food on the table.
“Because of the fair wage and consistent orders the makers with Hajiganj now receive, their entire community has experienced increased stability and opportunity and the women have discovered independence and empowerment for themselves,” says Martin. “Another group I visited in Bangladesh employs women who worked in the sex trade, who now hand-stitch gorgeous blankets from recycled sari material. This program has made it possible for these makers to send their own daughters to school, which breaks that cycle of poverty and desperation for the next generation.”
Throughout this year, Ten Thousand Villages in Asheville is celebrating its 25th anniversary. An International Food Tour in October will include stops at several downtown international restaurants, with cuisine samples at every location, ending with fair trade chocolate treats and coffee in the store. Monthly events will culminate with a Community Shopping Event series in December, when customers can designate a participating local nonprofit to receive 15 percent of their purchase.
Each December, traditional holiday garlands are big selling items in Ten Thousand Villages stores. In Bangladesh, the women of Prokritee, a fair trade cooperative that has worked with Ten Thousand Villages since 1986, taught Martin how to fold strips of dried palm leaf into stars to make the garlands.
“The work was accompanied by much laughter because, believe me, folding palm leaf stars is hard and I was, frankly, not very good at it. At the end of the day, we all sat together in their courtyard and shared songs and dances. Although there was a significant language barrier, we were able to connect on different levels and that, to me, exemplifies what Ten Thousand Villages aims to do: to form connections between people in different countries and cultures and encourage us all to live with the awareness that our purchases can create a powerful ripple effect of positive, global change.”
Ten Thousand Villages is located at 10 College Street in Asheville. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Volunteers are always welcome. Learn more at tenthousandvillages.com/asheville, on their Facebook page, or by calling 828.254.8374.